An excellent conversation about the future of seminary and graduate level theological education has broken out in the comment trail of our item about the recent layoffs at the Seminary of the Southwest, including comments from Marshall Scott, Michael Russell, seminarian Jim White and Elizabeth Butler of Seabury Western. (You can see their comments by clicking Read more.) One key question seems to be the role of a residential community in priestly formation. Thoughts?
We have discussed (including past discussions here at the Cafe) how things need to change to provide education for a body of professional clergy. We have several models around - denominational seminaries, diocesan programs, Anglican/Episcopal (tradition-oriented) programs at non-Episcopal institutions, and there may even still be a few folks who "read for orders" - and we know we have financial issues (Can seminarians afford graduate education? Can congregations afford to employ clergy with graduate school debts?). So, siblings, what do you think? Where might we go from here?
Posted by mscottsail | November 18, 2009 10:43 AM
In 1803 William White basically constructed a reading list for theological education and it was the curriculum until about the 1830s for General and Virginia.
It seems to me that a master reading list like that is a place to start with a set of core books that everyone must read and then specialization or interest areas where they may shape their education.
I have been a GOE reader for about ten years and before that was Chair of the COM in MD for several years. Educationally it seems to me that we should be concerned with identifying each canonical area's center or core substance the mastery of which should be attained by all who wish the whole church.
Once the center is learned, then people can move to the discipline's edges, those places where we push into new knowledge and speculative thinking.
Education is at its core about regurgitation and integration. We want, I think, people to be able to regurgitate data key to minstry and then show they can integrate it across disciplines so they can function in the real world.
Now lots of this could be done where they are planted with occasional gatherings to reflect and reinforce what they have been reading.
All of this begs the question of whether or not formation can happen in a dispersed way. Does it matter that seminarians dwell together and meet challenges together and worship together over a period of time? Is there something more to theological education that getting your competency ticket punched in various disciplines? Is it not worthwhile having people outside the home Diocese, who are trained in formation, observe an reflect and report on a seminarian's formation?
I believe the formation piece is much bigger than the regurgitation and integration of centers and edges of disciplines, so I tend to think some significant time together in worship and reflection is important for seminarians, even if we can't continue in the present mode.
One last thought is that at present out seminary system is entrepreneurial. Is that the best way, that those that can accumulate endowments and cash get to have residential seminaries?
Posted by Michael Russell | November 18, 2009 12:16 PM
I am a current seminary student. Are there other effective ways to pass on the graduate course materials besides a residential program? Absolutely. Is the knowledge learned in classes the most important part of seminary? Well, I don't think so. The classes are really important, but they aren't the end, they are the means. For me, the classes serve to equip me to thoughtfully engage my formation for pastoral leadership. I too struggle with worries of paying for seminary and limiting debt so that I can go where I am called by God eventually and not just take a job that pays enough (assuming they will still exist). But I wouldn't give up this experience for anything. Whatever model we decise works best, I don't think we can discount the importance of a community of priestly formation.
Posted by jmwhite1 | November 18, 2009 8:06 PM
Michael and Brother White, I would agree. I also think community is essential. I think of professional education as being about more than regurgitation and integration. It is about acculturation. Formation is about professing something. It's also about ethical formation, in the sense of participating in an ethos. Community is essential for both.
I don't think that requires one particular model of institution, but I think it does require an institution, in the sense of a formal structure. I would agree that a core curriculum is part of that, but so is a structured opportunity for community.
Posted by mscottsail | November 18, 2009 9:59 PM
Our hearts here at Seabury go out to all those who are affected by the sad and difficult time being experienced by those at Seminary of the Southwest. As a graduate of the 3 year residential model (Seabury, 1997) I have a deep affection for and appreciation of it’s benefits and strengths. At the same time, however, the very real financial constraints across theological education are sobering to say the least. The latest Association of Theological Schools Commission on Accrediting reports the following of the 180 freestanding thological schools reporting: 63 have deficits of up to 1 million while an additional 46 report deficits above one million. And fully 45% of the schools have less than a year of spendable reserves. And that doesn’t begin to touch on, as you mentioned Marshall, the reality of the burden falling to seminarians to fund their education and the congregations to support clergy sufficiently to help reduce those graduate school debts.
I am intrigued by your notion, Michael, of a core, substantive center of mastery, from which those who wish might move to explore more fully. And I agree fully with those who recognize formation goes far beyond classes alone. I know that those in leadership positions at of all the Episcopal seminary’s have certainly been grappling with all of this together as well as individually, though some of the tangible results of those conversations aren’t yet at the point of being ready to share. Here at Seabury, we are committed to exploring some new models for ministry preparation for both clergy and lay ministry.
What we’ve found in our 15 years of DMin in Congregational Development is that it is possible and highly effective to build and sustain a community of learners through a series of short residential sessions over a period of years. Many DMin graduates share that some of their closest colleagues remain those with whom they worshipped, studied, prayed, ate and lived even though those colleagues are far flung and the total time together was no more than a total of 9 weeks over 3 years. We’ve taken that model and begun our 8 course Anglican Studies Diploma with short residential sessions over a two year period that provides the equivalent of an Anglican ‘dip’ for those who attend other denominational seminaries or local ordination preparations. Already the response to this program offering has been significant. Something similar can be developed with other foci such as the core elements of the canonical areas or congregational leadership.
Posted by Elizabeth Butler | November 19, 2009 10:30 PM